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Res Rep Health Eff Inst. 2009 Mar;(139):5-71; discussion 73-89.

Effects of long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution on respiratory and cardiovascular mortality in the Netherlands: the NLCS-AIR study.

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  • 1Division of Environmental Epidemiology, Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands.


Evidence is increasing that long-term exposure to ambient air pollution is associated with deaths from cardiopulmonary diseases. In a 2002 pilot study, we reported clear indications that traffic-related air pollution, especially at the local scale, was related to cardiopulmonary mortality in a randomly selected subcohort of 5000 older adults participating in the ongoing Netherlands Cohort Study (NLCS) on diet and cancer. In the current study, referred to as NLCS-AIR, our objective was to obtain more precise estimates of the effects of traffic-related air pollution by analyzing associations with cause-specific mortality, as well as lung cancer incidence, in the full cohort of approximately 120,000 subjects. Cohort members were 55 to 69 years of age at enrollment in 1986. Follow-up was from 1987 through 1996 for mortality (17,674 deaths) and from late 1986 through 1997 for lung cancer incidence (2234 cases). Information about potential confounding variables and effect modifiers was available from the questionnaire that subjects completed at enrollment and from publicly available data (including neighborhood-scale information such as income distributions). The NLCS was designed for a case-cohort approach, which makes use of all the cases in the full cohort, while data for the random subcohort are used to estimate person-time experience in the study. Full information on confounders was available for the subjects in the random subcohort and for the emerging cases of mortality and lung cancer incidence during the follow-up period, and in NLCS-AIR we used the case-cohort approach to examine the relation between exposure to air pollution and cause-specific mortality and lung cancer. We also specified a standard Cox proportional hazards model within the full cohort, for which information on potential confounding variables was much more limited. Exposure to air pollution was estimated for the subjects' home addresses at baseline in 1986. Concentrations were estimated for black smoke (a simple marker for soot) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) as indicators of traffic-related air pollution, as well as nitric oxide (NO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter < or = 2.5 microm (PM2.5), as estimated from measurements of particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter < or = 10 microm (PM10). Overall long-term exposure concentrations were considered to be a function of air pollution contributions at regional, urban, and local scales. We used interpolation from data obtained routinely at regional stations of the National Air Quality Monitoring Network (NAQMN) to estimate the regional component of exposure at the home address. Average pollutant concentrations were estimated from NAQMN measurements for the period 1976 through 1996. Land-use regression methods were used to estimate the urban exposure component. For the local exposure component, geographic information systems (GISs) were used to generate indicators of traffic exposure that included traffic intensity on and distance to nearby roads. A major effort was made to collect traffic intensity data from individual municipalities. The exposure variables were refined considerably from those used in the pilot study, but we also analyzed the data for the full cohort in the current study using the exposure indicators of the pilot study. We analyzed the data in models with the estimated overall pollutant concentration as a single variable and with the background concentration (the sum of regional and urban components) and the local exposure estimate from traffic indicators as separate variables. In the full-cohort analyses adjusted for the limited set of confounders, estimated overall exposure concentrations of black smoke, NO2, NO, and PM2.5 were associated with mortality. For a 10-microg/m3 increase in the black smoke concentration, the relative risk (RR) (95% confidence interval [CI]) was 1.05 (1.00-1.11) for natural-cause (nonaccidental) mortality, 1.04 (0.95-1.13) for cardiovascular mortality, 1.22 (0.99-1.50) for respiratory mortality, 1.03 (0.88-1.20) for lung cancer mortality, and 1.04 (0.97-1.12) for noncardiopulmonary, non-lung cancer mortality. Results were similar for NO2, NO, and PM2.5. For a 10-microg/m3 increase in PM2.5 concentration, the RR for natural-cause mortality was 1.06 (95% CI, 0.97-1.16), the same as in the results of the American Cancer Society Study reported by Pope and colleagues in 2002. The highest relative risks were found for respiratory mortality, though confidence intervals were wider for this less-frequent cause of death. No associations with mortality were found for SO2. Some of the associations between the traffic indicator variables used to assess traffic intensity near the home and mortality reached statistical significance in the full cohort. For an increase in traffic intensity of 10,000 motor vehicles in 24 hours (motor vehicles/day) on the road nearest a subject's residence, the RR was 1.03 (95% CI, 1.00-1.08) for natural-cause mortality, 1.05 (0.99-1.12) for cardiovascular mortality, 1.10 (0.95-1.26) for respiratory mortality, 1.07 (0.96-1.19) for lung cancer mortality, and 1.00 (0.94-1.06) for noncardiopulmonary, non-lung cancer mortality. Results were similar for traffic intensity in a 100-m buffer around the subject's residence and living near a major road (a road with more than 10,000 motor vehicles/day). Distance in meters to the nearest major road and traffic intensity on the nearest major road were not associated with any of the mortality outcomes. We did not find an association between cardiopulmonary mortality and living near a major road as defined using the methods of the pilot study. In the case-cohort analyses adjusted for all potential confounders, we found no associations between background air pollution and mortality. The associations between traffic intensity and mortality were weaker than in the full cohort, and confidence intervals were wider, consistent with the smaller number of subjects. The lower relative risks of mortality associated with traffic variables in the case-cohort study population could be related to the particular subcohort that was randomly selected from the full cohort, as the risks estimated with the actual subcohort were well below the average estimates obtained for 100 new case-cohort analyses with 100 alternative subcohorts of 5000 subjects each that we randomly selected from the full cohort. Differences in adjusted relative risks between the full-cohort and the case-cohort analyses could be explained by random error introduced by sampling from the full cohort and by a selection effect resulting from the relatively large number of missing data for variables in the extensive confounder model used in the case-cohort analyses. More complete control for confounding probably did not contribute much to the lower relative risks in the case-cohort analyses, especially for the traffic variables, as results were similar when the limited confounder model for the full cohort was used in analyses of the subjects in the case-cohort study population. In additional analyses using black smoke concentrations as the exposure variables, we found that the association between overall black smoke and cardiopulmonary mortality was somewhat stronger for case-cohort subjects who did not change residence during follow-up, and in the full cohort, there was a tendency for relative risks to be higher for subjects living in the three major cities included in the study. Adjustment for estimated exposure to traffic noise did not affect the associations of background black smoke and traffic intensity with cardiovascular mortality. There was some indication of an association between traffic noise and cardiovascular mortality only for the 1.6% of the subjects in the full cohort who were exposed to traffic noise in the highest category of > 65 A-weighted decibels (dB(A); decibels with the sound pressure scale adjusted to conform with the frequency response of the human ear). Examination of sex, smoking status, educational level, and vegetable and fruit intake as possible effect modifiers showed that for overall black smoke concentrations, associations with mortality tended to be stronger in case-cohort subjects with lower levels of education and those with low fruit intake, but differences between strata were not statistically significant. For lung cancer incidence, we found essentially no relation to exposure to NO2, black smoke, PM2.5, SO2, or several traffic indicators. Associations of overall air pollution concentrations and traffic indicator variables with lung cancer incidence were, however, found in subjects who had never smoked, with an RR of 1.47 (95% CI, 1.01-2.16) for a 10-microg/m3 increase in overall black smoke concentration. In the current study, the mortality risks associated with both background air pollution and traffic exposure variables were much smaller than the estimate previously reported in the pilot study for risk of cardiopulmonary mortality associated with living near a major road (RR, 1.95; 95% CI, 1.09-3.51). The differences are most likely due to the extension of the follow-up period in the current study and to random error in the pilot study related to sampling from the full cohort. Though relative risks were generally small in the current study, long-term average concentrations of black smoke, NO2, and PM2.5 were related to mortality, and associations of black smoke and NO2 exposure with natural-cause and respiratory mortality were statistically significant. Traffic intensity near the home was also related to natural-cause mortality. The highest relative risks associated with background air pollution and traffic variables were for respiratory mortality, though the number of deaths was smaller than for the other mortality categories. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED)

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